CHEF HAN LI GUANG : A NEW EXPRESSION OF SINGAPORE CUISINE
- 1 Michelin star chef in Singapore at Labyrinth
- 50 Best Sustainable Restaurant Award 2021
- #40 @Asia’s 50 Best Award 2021
- Honour his eco-system of farmers, growers and artisans
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Chef LG Han
Born to 3 generations of restaurateurs and F&B operators, food was never far from Han Li Guang’s mind. When he decided to make gastronomy his career, the young Han cut his teeth working for internationally renowned chefs in Europe and Singapore, gaining a deft mastery of technique and a resolute passion for the craft. In 2014, Chef Han founded Labyrinth, encapsulating his roots and memories of growing up in Singapore. At his restaurant, Chef Han Li Guang practices a culinary philosophy built on responsibly understanding produce, ingredients and taste profiles, while championing a locavore cause of supporting local community. Labyrinth’s 80% locally sourced menu is a sensorial expression of his childhood food memories
especially those of grandma’s and a relentless enlivenment of traditional recipes and techniques, and the passion of local farmers presented through his eyes in a modern day and age. Chef Han Li Guang calls this food movement he pioneered the ‘New Expression of Singapore Cuisine.’ In 2017, Labyrinth was awarded the coveted Michelin star — a recognition of a chef and restaurant whose constant explorations challenge the norms and common perceptions of food; and in so doing reshaped the culinary landscape of Singapore.
The Next Phase at Labyrinth
It is often the case with great restaurants that time opens the road to self-reflection. Such a juncture has been reached by Labyrinth. This new chapter in its history opens with a redesigned dining room and a new menu. But more importantly, we see a change in philosophy in a broader, more nuanced response to the land, its produce and the people who nurture it to life. We see inspiration being drawn from the traditions that that land has given rise to, as well as from the living memory of childhood and family. We see that land – Singapore – being celebrated through an evolving ethos and style that is redefining the restaurant which is the soul and manifesto of Chef Han Li Guang. We see it and know that it is something special. Because it is no longer about fashioning a replica or mimic of some hawker dish or showcasing an elaborate technique calculated to surprise and awe. It is a deeper conversation Chef Han has sought, one that harks to the very root of cuisine itself – the ingredient and in particular that of his home soil, Singapore.
Chef Han weaves in the cultural dimension of story-telling and tradition
Through his dishes the narratives of the farming communities come to life; as do old recipes and forgotten techniques, and the fond memories of a childhood surrounded by food, especially that of his late beloved grandmother. Within the refurbished dining hall, Chef Han Li Guang has erected two gallery walls. The ‘Produce Wall’ displays the unique local ingredients used in his cuisine, drawn from Singapore growers and artisans. The other wall represents a ‘Tribute to Grandma’ and is lovingly festooned with the clay pots, tea pots, rice bowls and tea cups she would use at weekly family dinners at home. In the dimly-lit ambience of the restaurant these two focal walls glow with messianic, personal meaning. For his new vision, Chef Han presents what he calls the ‘New Expression of Singapore Cuisine.’ It is a re-examination of Singapore cuisine that doesn’t rely on the dichotomy of ‘hawker’ and ‘fine’ dining, nor the constraints of ‘Singaporean food.’ By liberating himself from what he sees as these artificial boundaries and labels, Chef Han assigns primacy to ingredients and flavour pairing. Instead, broad inspiration is drawn from local street food; but more crucially Chef Han Li Guang incorporates in-depth knowledge of traditional recipes and the technique of making all elements from scratch. Another shaping factor is the vivid memory of growing up in Singapore and the experience of his grandmother’s cooking. All these influences are placed in the context of their time and place and wedded to the locavore instincts of Chef Han, giving them definitive form.
At its heart, the ‘New Expression’ is a pledge of activism that seeks to correct a misconception of local produce and honour our eco-system of farmers, growers and artisans. It is the cruc i a l – though not only – realignment: Labyrinth also has a new interior. The dining room is more intimate, with the overhead lighting focused more directly on the food. Combined with the heightened sense of personal space brought on by the increased table spacing, and the fact that the kitchen is no longer visible, the diner feels that it is ‘just me and my food.’ The sense of story-telling is also greater; with a new gallery wall showcasing ingredients such as dried oysters, fat choy (black sea moss), fish maw, torched ginger flower, bird nest, wild honey, and dried shrimps – which the team would gladly elaborate on to guests. There is, of course, the wall dedicated to Chef Han’s grandma, and another featuring the artwork of Singapore artists. More stories can be gleaned from the new ‘menu cards’ with notes on the chef ’s inspirations, as well as the map of local farming communities. With its new spirit of enterprise, Labyrinth is not only more holistic as an epicurean dining experience, but more influential as an industry-shaper. From its revitalized ambience to its new cuisine built on a ‘manifesto’ of local-produce advocacy; from its remembrance of Grandma to its vision of culinary fraternity — it buzzes with utopian optimism and energy. And like the proud son of the soil, and Michelin-starred restaurateur-activist he is, Chef Han Liguang is flying the Singapore flag really, really high.
The Refocused Cuisine and Menu
True to its staunch locavore tenets, Labyrinth utilizes 80% local produce in its new menu, in unique flavour pairings inspired by the traditional recipes of Singapore. These homegrown meats and seafood, as well as vegetables and artisanal products, come from a roster of carefully sourced suppliers. Among them are Hay’s Dairy Farm, Jurong Fishery Port, Nippon Koi Farm, Toh Thye San Farm, Farm Delight, Kwong Woh Hing sauce factory, Chinatown Market, and Stingless Honey Bee Farm.
Supported by these local partners, Chef Han Li Guang has developed a produce focused cuisine that begins with identifying the ingredient he wants to use. From this choice of ingredient comes the formation, the ‘ideation’ of the dish, preceding any flavour pairing or technique to be used. For instance, stingless bee honey was picked, spawning the idea of rojak as a dish to express the ingredient – and not the other way around. Each dish thus created reflects Chef Han Li Guang’s food memories, in-depth research into traditional methods and flavours, and knowledge of flavour pairings. Highlights of the new menu include ‘Nasi Lemak’ Cheong Fun featuring chicken skin, ikan bilis & egg yolk gel; and Braised Baby Abalone which utilizes an 80-year-old recipe for oyster sauce, slow-cooked with fresh and dried oysters, and caramelized with natural sugar over 3 days. Others include Heartland Waffle, made of local duck liver pate & goji berry jam and inspired by his all-time favourite childhood snack; and Ah Hua Kelong Lala Clams, a dish of XO sambal, deep fried wonton skin & Chinese spinach using locally farmed shellfish. These constitute the section labelled ‘Chef ’s Favourite Street Food.’
Restaurant with a conscience bringing true farm-to-table food to Singapore
In a city-state with no real seasons, high population density and a plethora of high-rise buildings, chef Han Li Guang has created a gate-to-plate restaurant that takes sourcing, the environment and social responsibility seriously. Locality is the principle at the heart of Labyrinth, which celebrates not only Singaporean heritage, but also the impressive work of producers growing high-quality ingredients in the extremely limited spaces on the island.
In response to the coronavirus crisis, in 2020, Labyrinth spearheaded an initiative to provide free meals to frontline workers at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases in Singapore. The campaign ran from March to April and saw six other hospitality businesses get involved thanks to Han Li Guang and his team’s efforts, with each restaurant pledging a portion of its sales towards buying food or cooking meals for frontline staff. The meals and food items were hand-delivered to NCID by Labyrinth’s team, who also encouraged the public to make donations towards the initiative, raising a total of SGD$11,400 (US$8,488).
The disruption caused by the Covid-19 crisis to global food supply chains prompted Labyrinth to strike up a partnership with the Government of Singapore to promote the importance of local produce for food security and health. Their influence will no doubt have a huge impact on knowledge and understanding of local food sourcing, with Labyrinth already proving a just winner of the Flor de Caña Sustainable Restaurant Award 2021.